How one tragedy saved many lives: donor recipient remembers family friend who saved her life

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As Jane Derfler of Mapleton holds her 1-year-old granddaughter, she is grateful for a life that almost wasn’t.

At the start of 2020, Derfler was on her deathbed suffering from autoimmune hepatitis which led to cirrhosis of the liver, and was unable to care for her youngest son Cory who had special needs.

At the time, her son was being well taken care of by a young man named Caleb Johnson who had gotten to know Cory through a peer tutoring class in high school. Caleb not only got to know Cory, but forged a friendship with his family, and it was there where he learned about Derfler and her condition.

According to Caleb’s mom, Sheri Johnson, Caleb would often talk about Derfler, and wonder what it was he could do to help her. 

“Caleb went on a (church) mission, and about a year into his mission, he wrote home and he said, ‘do you remember Corey?’ and I said, yes. He said, ‘do you know what happened to their family?’ I said no, because I didn’t know his family at all; I just knew Cory. He asked me if I could find him.”

Johnson went on to explain how she found and connected with the Derflers while her son was on his mission, and how she was also able to connect Caleb with Cory so that he could write to him on his mission. And then upon returning home, the two connected and forged a friendship.

Caleb started taking care of Corey helping them in their home every day, and through that time, Johnson said that Caleb realized how sick Jamie really was, and on May 25, expressed this concern to his dad. 

“Caleb and my husband were moving stuff out of a storage unit into another storage unit, and he was just telling him that if Jamie could just get a liver, she would be able to take care of her family — she’d be able to take care of Corey,” Sheri recalled. “He said that she’d been on the donor waiting list, and needed to get a liver.”

The accident

On May 29, 2020, just four days after the conversation with his dad, 22-year-old Caleb Johnson was involved in a car accident that took his life. Cory did not pass away right away, but was declared brain dead and taken to the hospital. And because he was an organ donor, doctors were able to begin harvesting his organs for those who stood in need.

It was then when the Johnsons thought about Derfler.

“When we realized Caleb wasn’t going to make it, I said that we had a liver recipient and they said that it wouldn’t work because they had to be on the list, and compatible,” Johnson said. “I told them the story, showed them pictures of Caleb and Cory clear back in ninth grade and they just had tears and they just said, ‘we’ll do everything we can to make this work, but the blood has to work, and the size has to work.’”

Johnson called Derfler to see if she wanted to be considered to have Caleb’s liver, and Derfler recalled that moment as being very emotional.

“I was kind of stunned when Sheri called,” Derfler said. “I was like, ‘what do you mean? Like, Caleb’s not gonna live?’ And then at the same time, I was like, ‘I’m getting a new liver. What? Yes, of course, I want his liver.’ So I’m getting a new chance at another life, but we didn’t know if it could even happen, and even if it could, if I would be a match.” 

Not only did it work out, but Caleb’s liver was a perfect match. 

“You tell me that liver wasn’t supposed to go to Jamie, and had Caleb not reached out when or had that intuition while he was on his mission —  I mean, it’s just such a miracle story,” Johnson said.

A second chance at life

Following the transplant, Derfelr recalled feeling better almost immediately. 

“I was bedridden before my transplant, and within days after, I was able to have more energy, and my color came back to my skin,” Derfler recalled. “A lot of side effects that I was having from being sick had gone away, such as swollen joints and things like that.”

With that second chance at life, Derfler said that she takes in every moment she can with her family that she thought she may not be able to see grow up.

“Since the transplant I’ve been able to see one of my kids get married, and we’ve also got a granddaughter who’s a little over a year old,” Derfler said. “Those are things that I never thought that I’d experience. I’m excited to see more weddings and more grandkids, and have Caleb and the Johnsons to thank for that.”

A call to action

Caleb’s choice to be an organ donor was as simple as checking a box at the DMV, but that choice saved many lives. While the story of Caleb and Jamie is one that movies are made of, there were others whose lives were saved, if not greatly improved by his choice.

“It’s important to let people know how important organ donation really is,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t an organ donor; I didn’t even think about it actually. Caleb has set that example for me and I’m now an advocate for it because I’ve seen the good that it has done for these people that we know, and knowing them has been healing for our family.

“Caleb donated his heart, and we know that recipient as well,” she continued. “He donated his pancreas and we know that recipient. Even though we didn’t hand pick them, we’ve gotten to know them since. He donated his heart, liver, pancreas, lungs, and both kidneys, so he gave one kidney to two different people. There’s six total lives that were saved, and he also did bones, skin, and blood.”

While Caleb and Jamie’s story happened three years ago, the gift of life through organ donation is the gift that keeps on giving. 

On August 5, the Johnsons, Derflers, along with many family and friends, will be participating in The Gift of Life Walk/Run in memory of those who gave the ultimate gift, and to spread the word about organ donation. 

“This event is done in remembrance of the donors and the heroes, and Jamie and her family will be there to support us as well as the heart recipients,” Johnson explained. “It’s at

Sugar Park. and we have a team under Caleb called ‘CJ Serves.’ Anybody’s welcome to join. We would love to have an army behind us right now.”

Publisher’s Note: Coming up on four years ago, we had an article on Caleb Johnson as he is a talented musician/rapper. You can find that story by going to servedaily.com and searching Caleb or rapper. 

Personally, I enjoyed his musiv very much and some of it is on my top playlist on Spotify. I have included a QR Code below to his YouTube channel so you can visit it and listen to his music. Right Path & Kobe are two of my favorites. 

Arianne Brown
Arianne Brown
Arianne Brown is a mom of nine who writes columns for many local and national publications. She currently resides in Payson, and enjoys looking for good happenings in her area and sharing them for others to read about. For more of her stories, search "A Mother's Write" on Facebook.

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